The not-so-secret Overlap Unconference

Business Week published on August 3rd, 2009 a guest blog by Venessa Wong titled “Inside the Secret Overlap Conference“. Being an Overlap 2007 participant, I felt the Overlap concept would be best served and explained through a post I wrote immediately following my participation. That post is published on the Ning Network’s Overlap site, which is accessible only to members. Although membership is open, it may be an inconvenience to have to register in order to read my writing from June 17, 2007. I am therefore providing it here for convenience:

From Overlap 07 to Overlaps

Just got back, fully charged, from Geneva Park where Overlap 07 was held over the weekend. I must admit, it exceeded all my expectations. And no, it’s not the post-conference or post-vacation euphoria that often befalls people who extract themselves from their busy lives to attend an event. My enchantment has its roots in the unique blend that characterizes the concept of Overlap: An invitation only event, where a limited number of participants with a broad range of backgrounds, specialization and experience, selected carefully to have vivid minds and an overlap in their interests, are brought together in a pleasant and relaxed environment to engage in a conversation about a chosen subject.

The limitation of the number of participants provides the intimacy required for meaningful conversations and deeper understanding of the various contributions. The broad range of backgrounds and experiences available ensures that those conversations are inherently interdisciplinary and at the frontiers of each specialty. The pleasant and relaxed environment optimizes the collaborative potential of the group. The declared (initial) theme of the gathering provides an easy starting point for the various conversations, which are allowed to evolve the theme further by mutual agreement. Last but not least, the very thoughtful selection of participants guaranteed high caliber conversations (literally) every minute of Overlap 07. I believe I speak for all participants when I congratulate the organizers of Overlap 07 for the exceptional job they did.

This year’s theme started with the overlap of design, business, and innovation and expanded in the process to include communities and sustainability. So what was the outcome? Here is my personal take on it. I am sure that many of the friends I made at Overlap 07 will be writing soon their own conclusions.

For me Overlap 07 is a new form of intellectual exchange, firmly anchored in a peer-to-peer model. Contrary to traditional conferences and symposiums with static structures and deterministic outcomes, Overlap 07′ agile and dynamic structure results in a broad range of outcomes. Peter Evans was the first to point out the agile nature of this gathering. Like the other participants I will take out those elements of knowledge and insights that fit best my own interests and needs. Some of the knowledge and insight obtained at Overlap 07 I will use immediately in current projects; some will be the subject of collaboration with one or more members of the gathering; others will only come to bear in time or in indirect way, cross pollinating my own thinking and my future projects.

Overlap 07 was a wonderful journey full of wonderful discoveries. As Manuel Toscano pointed out, we are nomads thirsty for knowledge and wisdom. We discovered this magic place we didn’t know existed. Could there be others waiting to be discovered? Well, the mystery of the recipe for this magic place is starting to unravel. Perhaps many others will try their magic wands and build many other wondrous Overlaps. I can’t wait until I meet some of my fellow nomads on the next journey.

What’s Happened Since?

Now two years later, I am glad to observe that many overlaps have indeed emerged. The yearly Overlap event continued in New York in 2008 and California 2009, quite a feat considering there is no organizational structure or set leadership. More interestingly, an Overlap Toronto chapter emerged few weeks after the 2007 event and has evolved since into a persistent and dynamic community in Toronto, centered around the two organizers of Overlap 2007: Michael Dila and Robin Uchida of the Torch Partnership.

Not many people realize that many of the creative initiatives and activities in Toronto are emerging from that community: OCAD’s sLab (Strategic Innovations Lab), the famous Torch Lectures series, the Innovation Parkour concept, Unfinished Business project, the Wicked Brown Bag Lunch events, and the initiative to name a few.

I am certain similar activities and results were generated by Overlap participants in other geographies and areas of activity. I would love to hear from other participants about the impact it had on them and their communities.

So the “Secret Overlap Conference” is inviting you all to organize your own Overlap Unconference and start your journey of discovery. Every true “Overlapper” will be willing to help you in your efforts because the rewards are in the learning created by new overlaps and the opportunities generated by intelligent conversations with other creative minds.

Overlap has been kept “secret” on Ning, Google Groups, Facebook, Twitter (#overlap09), on a web site and who knows how many personal blogs! Take a peep at the secret. Perhaps that will inspire you to some action of your own?

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